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Monday, September 1, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: Blue Öyster Cult


1) Transmaniacon MC; 2) I'm On The Lamb But I Ain't No Sheep; 3) Then Came The Last Days Of May; 4) Stairway To The Stars; 5) Before The Kiss, A Redcap; 6) Screams; 7) She's As Beautiful As A Foot; 8) Cities On Flame With Rock And Roll; 9) Workshop Of The Telescopes; 10) Redeemed.

Heavy metal does not really need to be stereotyped. While there is no escaping the fact that dis­torted heavy riffage will inescapably be associated with «the forces of evil» in one way or another, there is really a lot of different opportunities, and dungeons, dragons, Mordor, Satan, wars, gore, guts, nuclear apocalypse, and the Four Horsemen are only a subsection of these. By the early 1970s, though, Led Zeppelin sort of epitomized the magical-mystical-medieval aspect of the heavy metal business, Black Sabbath prioritized intimate relationships with The Horned One, and that, kinda sorta, was it.

Two bands, emerging more or less at the same time, showed, however, that heavy metal (or heavy rock, at least — without getting bogged down in terminology) could be made to sound quirky, ironic, and tongue-in-cheek. The lesser one of the two was Budgie, and the bigger one was Blue Öyster Cult. In fact, that umlaut over the O pretty much says it all: a humorous quasi-«Ger­manization» of the band name, suggesting some sort of terrifying Teutonic brutality, but at the same time so self-consciously silly that not even the dumbest fan of this band would probably be tempted to check the proper spelling of the word «oyster». Come to think of it, it is even hard for me to imagine how this band could have had any dumb fans in the first place — certainly not in their earliest and finest period.

What can one say, really, about a band that was managed and directed not by one, but by two art critics and intellectuals? Sandy Pearlman «manufactured» the band way back in 1967, when they were still called «Soft White Underbelly», in order for them to write music to his lyrics, and later on, Richard Meltzer, his fellow student and author of The Aesthetics Of Rock, also joined in the fun. Blue Öyster Cult were their «experimental Monkees», in a way, although all of the band members participated in the songwriting process from the very beginning (on the debut album, five of the songs are co-credited to Pearlman, two to Meltzer, and three were written without any inteference from the literary gurus).

Interestingly enough, the band's earliest opera sucked plenty: several of their recordings from 1969, when they were engaging in some sort of comical bluegrass-rock, are appended as bonus tracks to some of this album's CD editions, and they are uniformly boring and instantaneously forgettable, regardless of the lyrics. It all changed overnight, with the release of Black Sabbath's first album — suddenly, the band had a point: they were to become the «intellectual equivalent» of the Sabs, playing comparably heavy, but less predictable music, set to first-grade rock lyrics that would clearly expose Geezer Butler for the lazy schoolboy that he was.

Under different circumstances, the album may have been an epic failure — the band could have turned out to be too smart for its own good, and from a commercial angle, they certainly were: Blue Öyster Cult only barely scraped the charts, probably allowing the band to make about as much money as would be enough to cover Ozzy's 24-hour coke supply. Hip New York critics loved them, though, with Lester Bangs himself issuing a glowing review in Rolling Stone, and they had their point: Blue Öyster Cult were weird and unpredictable, but they also rocked. At their best, these songs can be wild snarling beasts, or they can be sizzling pots of voodoo gumbo, or they can be loaded with heavy soul — these guys, hired by Pearlman and pointed in the right direction by Meltzer, turned out to be classy, evocative musicians.

The music is not really as heavy as Sabbath or Zeppelin: there is only a small bunch of monster riffs on the album, and it is just as strongly influenced by basic boogie-rock or moody pop-rock in the style of The Doors as it is by the metal masters. Lead vocals, alternately shared by four out of five band members, are efficient, but nothing to write home about. Technically, that is: when it comes to delivering the basic storyline, Eric Bloom is an effective actor, as are most of his col­leagues, who all like getting into character, be it the sad, moralistic storyteller in ʽThen Came The Last Days Of Mayʼ, nobly and epicly narrated by Buck Dharma, or the arrogant hellraiser in ʽCities On Flame With Rock And Rollʼ, wailed and growled out by drummer Albert Bouchard. Melodies, arrangement tricks, vocal flourishes — most of the time they compensate for the (relative!) lack of brute power.

This is not exactly «thinking man's heavy metal», because, fairly speaking, many of the lyrics are absurd or parodical, with Pearlman and Meltzer having more fun assembling and blowing up rock clichés rather than genuinely engaging the thinking man's thinking mechanisms; and the music is quite openly derivative, sometimes almost mockingly deconstructive (as when they suddenly launch into the melody of ʽMemphis, Tennesseeʼ in the middle of ʽBefore The Kiss, A Redcapʼ), and certainly not «progressive» in any possible sense of the word (and how could it be, with the music produced under the supervision of the author of The Aesthetics Of Rock?). None of which prevents the songs from being cool, classy, and kick-ass quality.

Being a sucker for a good heavy metal riff, I will not deny that ʽCities On Flame With Rock And Rollʼ, one of the tunes not having to do anything with the Pearlman/Meltzer agenda, has always been my instantaneous favorite on the album. The riff in question is derived from Black Sabbath's ʽThe Wizardʼ, but packs more suspense and condensed evil: this is really one of the best songs in existence that drives the idea of rock'n'roll exuberation through a filter of hellflames, Sodom and Gomorrah — the transition from the relatively merry chords of "let the girl, let the girl rock and roll" to the macabre "cities on flame now, with rock and roll" resolution is totally thrilling.

Other than that, I could not name any particularly outstanding highlights, but this is a good thing, because the album is amazingly consistent, and each song presents its own intrigue. ʽTrans­maniacon MCʼ announces the band's entrance as a scary eruption of the forces of evil, with re­ferences to Altamont, terror, pain, steel, "a plot of knives", and a nasty lead guitar part that bursts out in sneering laughter after each chorus — the band's own take on ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ, if you wish. ʽI'm On The Lamb But I Ain't No Sheepʼ further raises the stakes on tension and para­noia, its fast and nervous tempo matching the lyrics about a pursued fugitive (and the additionally sped-up, super-paranoid coda is pure genius). ʽStairway To The Stairsʼ uses brutal, bludgeoning chords and mutilated vocals that are reminiscent of ZZ Top's Texan rock (except ZZ Top them­selves had not yet quite mastered that style by 1972), and Meltzer's lyrics that poke fun at the newly emerged rock star image are right on the money.

The subtle-and-subdued vibe also agrees with these guys: ʽLast Days Of Mayʼ almost makes you want to shed tears for the poor drug dealer suckers betrayed and murdered by their own colleague in crime — roots-rock of the Eagles variety (Desperado was not yet released, though) turned on its head: Buck Dharma's show all the way, as he writes the song, sings it in a mournful, soulful manner with spiritual echo all around, and euphonizes the poor dead guys with the most ecstatic leads on the album. ʽShe's As Beautiful As A Footʼ is consciously absurdist ("didn't believe it when he bit into her face / it tasted just like a fallen arch"?), musically structured like a parody on the classic Doors sound, with Krieger-esque melodic leads, but endowed with a mystery aura of its own. And most chilling of all — the way ʽScreamsʼ opens with that ghoulish phased vocal track ("screams in the night, sirens delight...") right out of Hell's own lush antechamber.

Special kudos for ending the album with ʽRedeemedʼ, a song contributed to the band by outside friend Harry Farcas, utterly nonsensical and Bonzo Dog Band-ish in nature (apparently, ʽSir Rastus Bearʼ was the name of Harry's pet dog, but that doesn't help matters much), but it has the word "redeemed" in the title and in the chorus, so you get to think it is some sort of grand gospel folk anthem to logically wind things up, and it does sound uplifting and optimistic next to every­thing else on the album — another pop cliché, carefully extracted, bottled, processed, and muta­ted for public enjoyment.

In short, even if this is not Blue Öyster Cult's highest point (but it might be), this is definitely their atmospheric masterpiece — an album so tightly stuffed with mystery, intrigue, suspense, irony, and implicit intelligence that in many ways, topping it would be impossible, certainly not if they wanted to achieve commercial success. Not only that, but it is also a certain landmark in the story of «rock music taking an introspective look at itself», chiefly due to the Pearlman/Meltzer contributions, but then neither Pearlman nor Meltzer wrote or performed the actual music, so we have to assume the band members were totally in on the masterplan. «Black Sabbath meets Frank Zappa» — wouldn't be a totally legit comparison, of course, since there's a lot more other influ­ences here, and only a few of the Sabbath or Zappa features would be implied, but it could work for starters, especially if you need a tempting stimulus to get the record. Thumbs up from all possible perspectives: a record that is as intellectually stimulating as it is emotionally enjoyable.


  1. "Heavy metal does not really need to be stereotyped."
    Agreed - but BOC is not a very good example, as it's rather light weight - lighter than Deep Purple Mark II, who hardly ever dived into the doom/fantasy pool either. You point this out yourself.
    What's more, also BOC shows how far behind the American rock scene was. This

    "basic boogie-rock or moody pop-rock in the style of The Doors"
    already belonged to the past in 1972.
    All this says exactly zero about the quality of this album of course. No, I simply ask the same question as always: how good are the riffs? Alas, with a couple of exceptions not too good. As I don't really listen to rockmusic for the intellectual challenge either (even Yes are simpletons compared to Shostakovich and Ustvolskaya) I don't enjoy this album too much.

    1. "(BOC)..light weight, riffs... not too good"
      This is hilarious. BOC riffs are pretty rumbling and roaring, and/but are combined with dynamics rarely heard from the counterparts like Sabbath or Purple.

      "I don't really listen to rock music for the intellectual challenge"
      C'mon top commenter, you know what it means today to be intellectually challenged? ;-) How about Floyd or Crimson?
      ... OK then, stick with Rainbow and Blackmore. Those are kindergarten fantasies and imagination compared to the BOC university of existential horror.

    2. I'll be honest here... if Pink Floyd is your standard for "intellectual" music, you might want to consider broadening your horizons.

    3. I mean, jeez, you're replying to a comment that name-drops Shostakovich and you think that Pink Floyd is some kind of trump card?

    4. Oh, hi Anonymous, hallowed be thy name and your right to speak up openly in your very own name!

      Wait... I just name dropped - 'Anonymous'.. the highly esteemed name in lot of intellectual circles around the globe.
      Since I name-dropped you, then my Pink Floyd point - that they require some intellect to fully appreciate the music - is completely valid. If not more valid than someone's who name-drops Shooshtqweech (or whatever it's written), but considers Rainbow as the apex creativity in rock music.

    5. I don't have an account, and it's quicker to just click the "Anonymous" option than to waste time typing in a meaningless, arbitrary handle. Like, say, "Simplius". But here, have my real name if it makes you happy.

      In any case, MNb, while often irritatingly pompous in his comments here, listens to a ton of music, progressive rock included. (He even mentioned Yes in the comment that you replied to - in purely musical terms, a far more complex and theoretically interesting band than Pink Floyd could ever hope to be.) And his tastes are better satisfied by listening to orchestral music for its intellectual complexity and to rock and roll for its basic energy. He doesn't think that Rainbow and Deep Purple are "the apex creativity in rock music"; he simply prioritizes their sheer power over the middlebrow complexity of more ambitious rock - when he wants complexity, why not go all the way and listen to something like The Year 1917 instead of friggin' Animals?

      I mean, I enjoy Larks' Tongues in Aspic as much as the next guy, but anything following the conventions of rock and roll is inherently going to be rather lightweight in absolute terms. And if MNb finds that unfulfilling, it's pretty hard to say that he's not justified. (For that matter, even the blowhardiest stuff that he's written is ten times more justified than your frankly moronic "Shooshtqweech" remark - are you trying to present yourself as a twelve-year-old, or just a philistine? The guy ain't exactly obscure, to put it mildly.)

    6. Hi, MNb!

      If you still read this page, please find a better spokesman who will explain to the public your train of thoughts, since this one:
      1. Calls you 'irritatingly pompous' and 'blowhard'.
      2. Confuses complex (Floyd, BOC) and complicated (Yes).
      3. Thinks that "The Year 1917" is a rock album.
      4. Generally insults the public, not only you.

      and worst:

      5. His name is Aidan.

      Any move in that direction will be deeply appreciated.

    7. I'm not anyone's "spokesman"; I was just pointing out how nonsensical it is to hold up progressive rock (as smart as it is in the context of rock and roll) as intellectually challenging music to someone with MNb's scope of musical experience.

      You've answered that point twice, not with any real response of your own (barring a single line reiterating that Pink Floyd is a smart band), but with smarminess and personal attacks (though I'll concede my carelessness in italicizing "The Year 1917"). Why? If I'm wrong, show me why I'm wrong. If I'm not, accept that I might have a point. In any case, quit wasting time and space with this noisemaking.

    8. My Dearest Nadia,

      What the funk are you doing here on a blog that deals with rock music, and all aspects related to it? Lowbrow, highbrow, and whatever is in the middle.

      Rubbing our collective nose about the inferiority of our music? Insulting one of the most appreciated and discussed bands ever? (PF that is, not BOC, perish the thought)

      Dear prima donna, let me quote you:
      "if Pink Floyd is your standard for "intellectual" music, you might want to consider broadening your horizons."

      1. Where on earth did you get the idea that PF are my standard, and only standard option for intellectual music?

      2. Did you maybe give some advice how simpleton like me could broaden his horizons? (Of course in frames of rock music. Otherwise see the second paragraph, and GTF outta this blog). Smarmily, you didn't.

      So, with a little help of Google Translate, your quote becomes:
      "oh, you poor bastard with poor taste, I know better than you, I am so superior. Not only me, but also this MNb pompous wanker is better than you".

      Now, dear Nadia ballerina, with her aristocratic manners, this is the answer, this is why. You started the insults to me and to this blog's audience, you started the smarminess, and you got the treatment that you deserve.

    9. I'm coming a bit late to the party here, but I'd like to throw my two cents in. I don't think George was calling BOC the Mensa of rock music -- he simply meant that, rather than catering to genre tropes in their music, they preferred to analyze and parody these tropes, while still showing their appreciation for them. I'd be tempted to think of them as the MST3K of heavy rock. Their lyrics are certainly more intelligent than the writ of Geezer (or Ozzy), but their albums aren't supposed to be academic works. The main goal of their music is to get people to bang their heads and tap their toes -- they just put a little more effort (and talent) into the words, and they pull it off spectacularly.

      I vehemently oppose the notion that one can't look for intelligence in rock music (only a Kiss fanatic would think that way), as well as the idea that "intellectual" = "complex". Intelligence in songwriting isn't about how convoluted and dense you can make a piece of music -- it's knowing what flows together well and what will be memorable. An idiot can love Ustvolskaya and a genius can think the Ramones are one of the greatest bands ever. There are classical pieces that sound good when they're on but immediately vanish from my memory -- on the other hand, "Starless" and "Got to Get You Into My Life" are permanently etched into my brain. I loathe art snobs. They can jaw and drone for eons, but I sincerely doubt they actually feel any smarter after listening to Shostakovich -- but they do feel something swell when they act as if they're better than everyone else for it.

      I'm not afraid to hold up Pink Floyd as a standard for intelligent music. Their best songs are well-composed and memorable (regardless of how complex they are), they know how to build atmosphere and suspense, and Waters' lyrics (though not the most poetic) are well-written and often very clever. If Aidan thinks me a fool because of this, good for him -- I hope the sun shines a little brighter through the dark clouds around his head because of it.

      Now, to actually say something about the album, I love it. It might be my favorite of theirs (then again, I view their first three records as being just about even, so I guess it depends on a whim which one is best for me). Unsurprisingly, "Cities on Flame" stands out the most to me -- the atmosphere and vibe it has going is great. The "Wizard" riff pummels you into the ground while still being relatively lighthearted in the hands of Sabbath. It doesn't hit as hard in BOC's, but it serves a different and equally satisfying purpose.

    10. This left rock and roll's frame of reference the moment that MNb typed "Shostakovich", but my point holds true even in that context. I don't think that Pink Floyd weren't smart, broadly speaking (at least not until 1987, but that hardly counts), and they had a powerful command of atmosphere and mood. But they weren't especially "intellectual" lyrically - Roger Waters was always more of a sharp wit than a deep thinker - and their songwriting is hardly "challenging" at all, barring a few fantastic exceptions like "Echoes" and "Shine On, You Crazy Diamond"; Frank Zappa, King Crimson, and Yes could all run rings around Pink Floyd from a compositional standpoint. Basically, I don't think that Pink Floyd are the standard for what rock and roll can offer as "intellectually challenging". Good band - great band, in many areas - but certainly not rocket scientists.

      As I said before, I like progressive rock quite a bit. I also like new wave, Golden Age rap, '70s electronic music, and countless other genres of popular music. And in fact, I listen to very little orchestral music, as I have an unfortunate tendency to get hung-up on finding the "right" performance of a piece to listen to. But I don't pretend that there isn't a bigger picture, and I understand that someone else might see more of it.

    11. One thing is abundantly clear: The average age of Only Solitaire blog commentators! Dozens of Bjork and Black Box Recorder reviews whiz by without comment. Then, on a fateful Tuesday, a review of a 40 year old BOC album brings on a raging debate with all the familiar (and a few new) faces! :-)

    12. Malx,

      Bjork should be forgotten as a bad 90's artifact ASAP, like Black Crowes. If you don't agree. just listen to her last offerings. Besides, I added my rant on the entry for her album that was the apex of her career.

      Black Box Recorder? Yet another faceless indie band out of the thousands influenced by Velvet Underground, Love, Gainsbourg & Birkin... All three of them light years better and tones more substantial than all those alleged heirs.

  2. OK, fan writing here. Or even better, a former fan. Former, because of their train wreck in the mid-eighties, and then their mediocre releases at the turn of the centuries.

    This album pretty much gives the notion what BOC is about. A po-mo brainchild of two rock critics and their notion what is supposed be a good rock music. But, in order not to be that contrived, the 5 real drivers of this BOC vehicle also trigger their imagination and talents to their best to complete the picture.

    It is a very good album, but not excellent and it doesn't have jaw-dropping moments like on the next two releases. Just compare the "I Am On The Lamb.." with the rewritten "The Red And The Black", and see what I mean.

    1. I actually prefer "I'm On The Lamb" to "The Red & The Black". I like the slightly muffled, echo-y sound of this record, even if it's more likely due to a shoestring production budget than anything intentional. It gives the tunes a nicely distant, psychedelic flavor and helps position them in between the outgoing Age of Aquarius and the incoming Golden Age of Leather.

    2. Spot on, Malx!
      While abundant here, the West Coast sound will linger in just traces on the next two albums, and completely disappear in the colour-sleeved and (questionably) better produced releases.

  3. Agree w/Simplius. Secret Treaties is amazing, especially "Dominance And Submission".

  4. The one to own! This one will produce some genuine shivers. It just might take a few listens for those accustomed to rock in it's more 'brutal' forms.

  5. This album is pretty fun to listen to. Solid melodies, diversity of arrangements and a good dose of energy. The review says it all, indeed.